Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Giorgio Manganelli's Centuria: 100 Ouroboric Novels

Giorgio Manganelli's Desk

In the end, the reviewer considering a new book to read settles on one by Italian neovanguardia writer Giorgio Manganelli (1922-1990), his 1979 work Centuria: cento piccoli romanzi fiume, a collection of “100 Ouroboric Novels,” as the translator, Henry Martin, boldly renders the sub-title, given that “fiume” means “river,” not “ouroboric.” The reviewer allots his review a fixed length. He begins by relating the author’s description of his work: a “thin but endless volume” created when faced with a stack of loose-leaf paper. Using the page size as a parameter like the form of a sonnet or, adds the reviewer, an Oulipian constraint, the author wrote a single novel on each page until he arrived at one hundred one-page novels. The reviewer thinks an edition of 100 loose sheets in a box might have been fitting.

The author keeps these little novels little, acknowledging that novels usually take up a lot of room on bookshelves. The reviewer does not need to be told. The author views his deceptively small novels as concentrates, distillations, romans fleuves, in which a well-equipped reader, dipping in, may be able to discern much between the lines. They are, he proclaims, novels “from which all the air has been removed. And that might be my definition of a novel: forty lines plus two cubic meters of air.” In one such novel, a man provides a twist on this thought, averring that a wise society would give objects no corners or edges, that even books “should be spherical; balls with writing inside them.” The reviewer, bringing lips to index finger to apply suction to a sudden paper cut, ponders this.

To these conceptual assertions about writing, the author adds specific advice for “the optimum way to read this little book”:

Acquire the right to the use of a skyscraper with the same number of floors as the number of the lines of the text to be read; at each floor, station a reader holding the book; assign each reader a line; on a signal, the Supreme Reader will begin to plunge from the building’s summit, and as he transits progressively past the windows, each floor’s reader will read the line assigned, in a loud clear voice. It is understood that the number of the building’s floors must exactly correspond to the number of the lines, and that there be no ambiguity on second floor and mezzanine, which might cause an embarrassing silence before the impact. It is also good to read it in the outer shadows, better if at absolute zero, in a capsule lost in space.

The timid and thus unreliable reviewer, however, read the book in bed. Though the impact may have been relatively lacking, the reviewer nonetheless admired the conception and execution of the work. The book’s translator calls out its echoes of both the “100 tales” of Boccaccio’s Decameron and lists of “100 Great Novels” to which the author had been asked to contribute. Another precursor may be Giambattista Basile’s determinate number of tales in the Pentamerone. An almost certain influence, one with which Centuria shares a similar authorial, instructive, gently detached tone, can be found in the ten open-ended tales of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, by the author’s colleague Italo Calvino.

Absent the thrilling velocity of a plunge from the roof, one hundred of such narratives might wear. But the variety of the author’s conceits, his encouragement to imagine, his microscopic dissections of tedium, frustration, fantasy, power, relationship, and myriad other subjects keep the reader engaged. Through these tales pass ordinary men and woman, knights, emperors, assassins, lovers, prisoners, bored ghosts, a custodian of public toilets, a man trailed everywhere by a funnel-shaped chasm. Even more fantastic characters feature in the tales, including elderly dinosaurs, a perfect pink sphere to which a woman has given birth, a shape-shifting animal that becomes all mouth, a plaster statue whose happiness contrasts starkly with the bitterness of the figure upon whom he is modeled, and a celestial body that turns out to be an entire intact city square flying about alone in space.

Conscious of having passed the equator of his review and drifting into its southern climes, perhaps even around its pole, the reviewer, quickly then, has been impressed by how these stories – despite the descriptor “ouroboric” being the translator’s - indeed seem to eat their own tails and tales to produce a sense of stasis and circularity. The stories broadcast themselves as fictions, each page serving as a dividing plane between fiction’s enchantment and the reader’s ability to perceive it as enchantment. In one novel, a man does “nothing at all.”  As in a Samuel Beckett novel, “He walks around the house. He makes a cup of coffee. No, he doesn’t make a cup of coffee. No, he doesn’t walk around the house.” But the mere awareness of the enchantment may not be enough, as the reader, by the act of reading, becomes the author’s captive. In the 79th story, a prisoner, unaware of the crime for which he has been condemned, is provided every luxury, even that of leaving the palace in which he’s been imprisoned. However, he must find the right door among the “dozens of doors that open into walls. Dozens more open into empty rooms that lead to nowhere; others which lead, by way of another door, into rooms where still a further door leads back to the room of the initial door – the design of a brief labyrinth.” Not knowing whether the correct door will open by key or password, he can request a daily series of questions from which he must deduce the “liberatory phrase… It’s a game. The prisoner feels flattered, and he is almost pleased that his freedom depends on the caprice of such a cultivated prince.” In perhaps the most ouroboric of the author’s novels, a man decides to write a novel. Having never written a novel, and having little clue as to how to go about it, and little in the way of experiences to bring to writing, the man recognizes the enterprise’s futility. He winds up where he began, in the story’s open mouth. As though to remove any doubt concerning the ouroboric nature of his pieces, the author’s ultimate selection involves fiction writers who in their fictions have the power to create – and extinguish – other fiction writers.

Centuria, as the reviewer, in his limited knowledge, has come to understand, is neither typical nor atypical of the author’s output, which is said to display a remarkable range of styles, subjects and forms. Though at least one other collection of stories has been translated into English, the reviewer, as usual, etc., etc., knows little of the author’s work but would nonetheless like to see more made available, perhaps especially the intriguingly titled Pinocchio: un libro parallel. But the abyss below the page on which the reviewer has committed to write rapidly approaches convergence with his dwindling words, threatening to swallow them. He can only say, pivoting to the shelves to grab a new book to read before vanishing, that as an introduction to the author’s work and to contemporary Italian experimental writing, Centuria has been a good place to start.

Giorgio Manganelli, Iceland


  1. This is avery neat, creative and entertaining post Scott.

    The 79th story, as you describe it, sounds so interesting. Stories of similiar "games" have always appealed to me.

  2. Thank you, Brian. The whole book is a game, as was trying to write about it.

  3. Wonderful stuff, Scott. I love the way you've written this review! It reminds me of your fab piece on the Casares/Ocampo novella, Where There's Love, There's Hate. I think I can see how you got here from Calvino's If on a Winter's Night... Is there a touch of Borges here as well, maybe in the 79th story?

  4. Thanks, Jacqui. Yes, definitely a bit of Borges here, and probably quite a bit more Calvino, since the latter was a steward and champion of many Italian experimental writers, and he and Manganelli were close literary colleagues.

  5. Good review, Scott, and thanks for bringing this writer to my attention.

    To these conceptual assertions about writing, the author adds specific advice for “the optimum way to read this little book”:

    I'm beginning to realize this was quite common in the 1970s, these reader instructions; they're also found in John Barth and Calvino; and it's interesting how so some novels of the book featured essays by or interviews with the authors explaining their purpose (Three Wogs, Caliban's Filibuster). It's like they all realized they were doing new things with narrative and wanted the reader to understand them. This, of course, goes back to Henry Fielding putting in micro-essays about novel writing in "Tom Jones."

    1. Thanks, Miguel. I like your observation about the common practice in some '70's writing of providing instructions, and it's quite evident in this work by Manganelli that he's been infected by Calvino in that regard (or vice versa, I don't know). I also sense a particular Italian angle to this, given how many narrators in Italian literature engage in a conversation with their readers, from Orlando furioso to The Betrothed to If on a Winter's Night a Traveler.... I'd love to see a list of works with "instruction manuals," though.

  6. "and it's interesting how so some novels of the book" - Oops, I meant "novels of the time" (60s, 70s).